Elizabeth Bowen’s Brilliant, Impossible Notes on Writing Dialogue

Elizabeth Bowen

I had intended this piece to be about how brilliant Elizabeth Bowen’s notes on dialogue are, from her essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” which you can read by signing up for free at http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/fall-2006/notes-writing-novel.  The whole “Notes” is brilliant, but more than I can deal with here.

I have used these notes to teach dialogue for decades, but I suddenly had the unpleasant feeling that maybe I had violated the Writing Teacher’s Hippocratic oath:  First, do no harm.

Had I been harming writers for years by giving them impossible notions a la Bowen of what dialogue must do and be?

I’ll give you a few of her key points:

“Dialogue requires more art than does any other constituent of the novel…Art in the trickery, self-justifying distortion sense.  Why?  Because dialogue must appear realistic without being so. Actual realism—the lifting, as it were, of passages from a stenographer’s take-down of a ‘real life’ conversation—would be disruptive.  Or what?  Of the illusion of the novel. In ‘real life’ everything in diluted; in the novel, everything is condensed.”

So far so good.

“What are the realistic qualities to be imitated (or faked) in novel dialogue?—Spontaneity.  Artless or hit-or-miss arrival at words used.  Ambiguity (speaker not sure, himself, what he means).  Effect of choking (as in engine): more to be said than can come through.  Irrelevance. Allusiveness.  Erraticness: unpredictable course.  Repercussion.”

Continue reading “Elizabeth Bowen’s Brilliant, Impossible Notes on Writing Dialogue”